Path of Exile: Scourge Tiptoes Toward a More Welcoming Game

The Atlas of Words sees a significant rework, and so do Passive Skill trees.

Path of Exile, the ever-growing free-to-play ARPG in the vein of Diablo, continues to shake its own foundations. Its so-called Leagues (seasonal content updates under a specific theme) aren’t too shy to include significant changes. But developer Grinding Gear Games is aware of it. If the upcoming tweaks to the Atlas of Worlds and Passive Skill trees are any indication, we may be witnessing the first steps toward a more streamlined experience.

Producer and developer Chris Wilson explained these promising changes and more during an early reveal of Path of Exile: Scourge. The new Challenge League, set to release on October 22 for PC and October 27 for consoles, is an action-packed one. Introducing a new device called the Blood Crucible, the season allows you to travel to an alternate, demon-infested dimension after you’ve collected enough blood from enemies.

There’s a gritty ambience that gave me a “Doom Slayer has entered the facility” vibe from the get-go, which definitely has me hooked (or meat-hooked, if you will). The premise of the Blood Crucible (which is implanted in your character’s body) falls into the same vein (heh). But while the Scourge’s realm has a distinctive look, the experience continues to be as complex as ever. Additions such as new currencies and skills are intricate for everybody — especially newcomers. Which is why I appreciate the seemingly long-term plans to lower the barrier to entry.

Path of Exile 2 still has a long way to go, so we can expect many more Leagues until then. At the same time, these seasonal content updates are always integrated in some form or another into the main experience going forward. You can opt out from the League if you want (especially since everyone starts with a new character from scratch), but a couple months later, the additions featured in said content update will be part of the regular experience as well.

I had the opportunity to return to Path of Exile earlier in 2021 after casually dropping in and out throughout the past few years. To my surprise, a lot had changed. Each League has its own set of rules, main and secondary mechanics, and a whole lot of vocabulary to learn. Watching them co-exist in one integrated experience can be daunting, to say the least. It took me a long while to learn the ropes, and that was with support from a welcoming Discord group in the process who took me to the endgame of the Ritual League in the span of two long, intense days.

As I sat watching this new presentation, I felt incredibly smart — being able to actually understand what Wilson and the team are working on. My past self would be proud! But even so, a few of the systems being revamped are some which I haven’t gotten around to. On one hand, it’s comforting to know that you can jump into a new League, create a character, and just play through the main campaign while enjoying the featured content without the need of previous encyclopedic knowledge. But as soon as you stop to interact with a strange NPC or device on the side of a road, you may open the door to a rabbit hole or two — from gardening to full-on bank heists.

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Regardless of experience, the Scourge League is focused on the aforementioned loop of charging the Blood Crucible by defeating enemies until you meet a certain threshold. Then you can jump to an apocalyptic alternate universe to fight demons. The benefit of this, as well as fighting demons in a cool locale, is that the Blood Crucible can hold items. Kill enough enemies inside this alternate reality and said items will become corrupted, gaining a pair of “Scourged Modifiers.” These modifiers work on top of existing mods or enchantments on the item, too, which makes for an interesting change of pace (and gear builds).

Of course, there are both limitations and a risk/reward component involved. The more time you spend inside the alternate reality, the stronger the Scourge becomes. Luckily you can opt out at any time and continue traversing the regular area. Wilson mentioned that during playtesting it usually took folks a minute or two to jump in and fight the Scourge — which you’re encouraged to visit as frequently as possible, experimenting each time.

It’s also worth noting that Scourged Modifiers come in pairs. One naturally grants a beneficial effect but the other adds a detrimental mod each time. The first is self explanatory, but the second can be complicated. Some significantly increase the requirements of the corrupted item you used in the Blood Crucible. Others go so far as to penalize your character’s stats or resistances, as well as turn off entire character abilities.

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If you’re not happy with the results, you can reroll the mods a second and third time by repeating the previous process. Equipment can be transformed up to three times, as well, and each time it guarantees a minimum tier of beneficial and detrimental mods equal to the number of times it has been transformed. Oh, and in case you were wondering, you can further enhance already corrupted items. As if the potential of this new mechanic wasn’t promising enough.

How about sockets? Well, during your expeditions to the Scourge reality, you can find Tainted Chromatic Orbs, Tainted Jeweller’s Orbs and Tainted Orbs of Fusing. These work exactly the same as their regular, equally strangely named counterpart items. Though they can only be used on corrupted items.

In case you’re not a fan of having to click through each individual currency item you come across (Path of Exile doesn’t just have “money” in the traditional sense) Wilson mentioned that the team is currently trying out a system where currency items drop less frequently. The tradeoff being that they do so in larger stack sizes. “For example,” he said “Scrolls of Wisdom in the late game might drop one tenth of the time, but when they do drop it’d be in stacks of 6-14”. This also applies to some instances where item drops happen simultaneously, making it so that items which drop in stacks will automatically appear as such (mainly, at the end of Delves, Rituals, Blight encounters, Breachstones, Simulacrum and Incursions, as well as chests and areas like splinter drops).

The Blood Crucible can also be upgraded (a new skill tree!) by earning experience during your Scourge-killing trips. This allows you to unlock new tangents to experiment with, from additional item slots to the ability to transform unique items. But I was particularly interested in the fact that you can place maps in the device while exploring the Atlas of Worlds. These can be transformed up to 10 times, with a chance of beneficial or detrimental modifiers to stack alongside existing ones. All this ties nicely with the announced changes forthcoming in the Atlas of Worlds.

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Currently, after you finish the main story in Path of Exile, you can dive into the Atlas of Worlds. This is an endgame activity where you explore maps and complete their content, returning with tons of loot if you manage to survive. The trick is that each map has variable conditions. Not to mention different tier levels! The higher the tier, the greater the risk/reward factor ends up being.

I’m not gonna lie: It’s a complex endeavor. The Atlas of Worlds itself is a massive, interconnected map where you can modify and upgrade the individual maps you explore. I dove into the details already in case you’re curious, but if you have yet to try it, there’s some good news.

Starting from the Scourge League and onwards, the number of regions have been reduced from eight to four. This means that Watchstones drop at 32 to 16. As per the number of maps, these have been reduced for a total of approximately 100 items, plus the unique maps. Other changes include slightly larger Atlas Passive Trees alongside the removal of “less-frequently used or duplicated” skills. Luckily, the number of Atlas Passive skill points awarded remains the same. Early next year, the team will release an overhaul of the Atlas of Worlds in the 3.17 expansion. Though details remain to be seen.

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That’s just the tip of the iceberg, really. Uber versions of Breach, Blight, Legion, as well as an extension to Delirium’s Simulacrum and a revamp of Delve are all additional parts of this update. There is still attention being put into providing both newcomers and veterans reasons to return to the game; Scourge seems to aim for a balance between them once more.

You can expect more Skill Gems to try out in existing or new builds altogether. This includes a personal favorite of mine called Temporal Rift. The skill allows you to rewind your character’s state by four seconds. Once you activate it, Temporal Rift begins storing your position, life, mana, and energy shield values every quarter second. Use the skill again and you’ll be back at the state you were four seconds ago.

If your build relies on skills that damage your character, Temporal Rift can allow you to cast them before immediately returning to full health. It’s a real game-changer in hardcore mode to prevent you from an early death.

But one peculiar announcement is related to the sprawling, daunting Passive Skill Tree (or “skill forest” as we sometimes call it) which is seeing an intriguing rework. After carefully identifying passive skills with considered niche stats, the team decided to concentrate on adding new clusters.  Now, the niche stats have been removed from the main tree to prevent them from getting in the way of other skills (some which have also been refined).

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Instead, the Passive Masteries system guarantees that all passive skill clusters with a notable passive can now contain a “Passive Mastery.” From here, after you spend a passive skill point on said mastery, you can just choose a specific stat to gain. This has allowed for more breathing room in the passive skill tree (which is more than welcome, really), as well as allowing for more build possibilities.

The team continues to work on forthcoming and future updates as per usual, despite the fact that the COVID-19 Delta variant has had a strong impact on New Zealand, where Grinding Gear Games is based. Wilson says that “it’s been challenging” and “quite disruptive,” taking into consideration that the country is currently on week nine of a nationwide lockdown. While the studio managed to avoid the need to adapt to remote work for most of 2020 and 2021, as it was safe to go to the office, it has all taken a turn in the other direction.

“To some extent the rest of the world is opening up again. Like if I blame COVID for something the players will say ‘come on that was an excuse 18 months ago and not a good excuse now, you’ve had a lot of time to get used to this.’ So, that’s been tricky.” In addition, since the New Zealand border has been closed for 18 months, it hasn’t been possible to hire people internationally to travel and work in the country for a very long time, which has continuously slowed the development of Path of Exile 2.

When asked about his opinion on the recent shift from some studios to four-day work weeks, including Guardians of the Galaxy’s Eidos Montreal, Wilson said the team is “watching those kinds of things with interest”. At the moment, the development cycle for each of the new releases (whether it may be a League or an expansion) lasts for 13 weeks. “The thing that would worry me is whether or not we’re still able to get the 13 weeks of work done with shorter work weeks. The theory is that people are more productive, so yes you can, but we haven’t really taken the gamble to try that out yet.”

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